(EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of those in the Knoxville entrepreneurial community no doubt have met and interacted with Al Moffatt. He moved here a couple of years ago from the West Coast and immediately looked for ways to get engaged. The following interview was conducted before Christmas. Now, Al and his wife have decided to return to Northern California. In spite of being thousands of miles away, he will still be connected. “I will still be mentoring at KEC (via Zoom, etc.), and I will also be working with entrepreneurs at the Sacramento Entrepreneur Academy,” Al told us. We asked about professional plans. “I’m very blessed to not have to work so we’ll see where my heart, head and God’s will takes me.”)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Al Moffatt has only lived in Knoxville for about two years, but he’s already become a fan of the community and its emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem.
He moved here in March 2016 is take a position as Senior Vice President for The Tombras Group, a 260-person, full-service advertising agency that is moving within weeks into the old KUB headquarters in Downtown Knoxville.
Prior to relocating all the way across the country, Moffatt had spent his life on the West Coast, active in the marketing and advertising sector with some big players like Chiat/Day and Ketchum plus owning his own firm in Portland, OR.
Soon after arriving here, he became involved with the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) where he has been able to work with start-ups and also compare the local entrepreneurial ecosystem with one he was a part of in San Francisco. His assessment comes after being involved as a mentor with more than 50 KEC clients.
“Knoxville and East Tennessee are a very promising destination for entrepreneurs of the future,” Moffatt says. Citing both Gen Z and Millennials, he adds that this region is “the center of the bullseye for those generations.”
Moffatt believes several factors are making the region attractive – demographic and sector diversity, the recreational opportunities (mountains, lakes, biking and hiking), and climate,
“We have everything they want to marry with their lifestyle and their desires to do something on their own,” he says. “We’re seeing the benefit of lifestyle demographic trends.”
There’s more attention being placed on Tennessee, as Launch Tennessee has noted, because of the vibrancy that starts in Nashville. Moffatt notes that Tennessee’s State Capital ranks in the top five in IPOs. Who are the top two? San Jose and San Francisco. Another statistic that reflects well on the Volunteer State is the percentage of individuals who own a business. In California, it’s .07 percent compared to .05 percent in Tennessee.
In his nearly two years here, Moffat has also drawn some important conclusions about key characteristics that define Knoxville’s start-up ecosystem. One is the diversity of start-ups and the sectors where they are focusing, no doubt a ramification of the fact that two of the region’s key technology drivers – Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee – have multiple research areas of emphasis.
“A lot of the start-ups we are seeing are more (about) personal fulfillment (like) the maker movement than let’s build this company and IPO in five to seven years,” he says. “The ambitions of these entrepreneurs are more local than national. They want a really strong presence locally and maybe in the Southeast.”
Another characteristic of the local start-ups founders is the fact that they tend to be either baby boomers or college students. “This tends to reinforce the fact that many are focused on personal fulfillment,” Moffatt says.
He also has noted that many of the entrepreneurs don’t have a robust business background. Is that a problem? The answer is yes. “They tend to get paralyzed by what they don’t know,” Moffatt explains.
All of these characteristics have a direct impact on the availability of capital and the fact that many local start-ups rely on friends and family for funding.
“That’s thwarting some people here,” Moffatt believes even though there is a good angel market.
So, how would he compare Knoxville and the Bay Area numerically?
“If the Bay Area is a 10, we’re probably about a three or four in terms of our infrastructure,” Moffat says, adding that he sees it changing in the future. “I’m really encouraged by dedicated, highly visible efforts like those of Launch Tennessee.”
What is needed to spearhead faster evolution? Moffatt believes it is programs that incentivize more start-up activity. To illustrate the point, he draws an analogy with the U.S. Space Program that started in the late 1950s and witnessed John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the earth in 1962.
As we do with seasoned individuals like Moffatt, we asked him for some cogent advice he would offer aspiring entrepreneurs. One suggestion relates to the customer and market. “Thirty-five years in advertising has taught me to understand the customer and work back from there,” he says. The other is to have the endgame in mind.